For three years as mayor of Salem, Kim Driscoll led a fruitless crusade. She had thrown her weight behind a policy that would legalize accessory dwelling units — small structures on the same property as a larger home that act as a separate housing unit.
It’s an increasingly popular strategy across Massachusetts as local officials look for creative ways to address the state’s housing crisis. But in Salem, four of the 11 city councilors frequently opposed proposals to add housing, enough to block zoning changes that required a supermajority for approval, first in 2019 and again the following year.
Then Driscoll’s cause overlapped with that of Governor Charlie Baker, who had been criss-crossing the state to drum up support for a housing bill that would allow municipalities to make changes like those being considered in Salem by a simple majority of councilors.
Once that bill, Housing Choice, was passed in 2021, it was a straightforward step for Driscoll to get accessory units approved in Salem, which she did in a matter of months. The experience positions Driscoll well to bring lessons from the local level, where development of any kind is almost always met with some community opposition, to her new position as lieutenant governor in a Healey administration that has vowed to make building more housing a priority.
“I understand how difficult change can be in a community. But we need to start talking to people about what it means if we don’t grow housing on the town and city level, and recognize that we’re all part of one ecosystem,” Driscoll said in an interview. “If nobody’s willing to build housing, this statewide crisis that we have is not going to get better.”
Driscoll, and Governor-elect Maura Healey, will take office next week on the heels of two of the most ambitious housing efforts Massachusetts has passed in decades: Baker’s Housing Choice legislation, and the MBTA Communities law, which requires towns served by the MBTA to zone for denser housing near transit stations.
Supporters and housing advocates, as well as people who have worked with Driscoll, are looking to her as someone who understands both local government and city planning, with hope she will take the Baker administration’s momentum and run with it.
But it’s a delicate balance, said Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo, and it will require an approach that considers the opinions of residents who view housing issues based on what’s unfolding in their own communities.
“That’s a big reason why so many people tend to be opposed to new housing policies, because they’re afraid of seeing their community change. But when you successfully convince people, show people that new housing in their community isn’t a bad thing, then you start to make progress,” he said. “That’s something Mayor Driscoll understands and has seen during her time in Salem, which I think will be immensely helpful for Massachusetts.”
Home prices in Massachusetts have never been higher, and by some estimates, the state needs 400,000 more units by 2040 to meet demand. Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, said the crisis has become an almost existential question for the state.
“It is the foremost economic issue facing the Commonwealth,” he said, “and a matter of our economic competitiveness as a state.”
Salem is a microcosm of the state’s housing dilemma. It is steeped in history — its streets dotted with 19th Century sea captains’ mansions and tenements for immigrant factory workers. And, while it has become increasingly unaffordable over the last several decades, residents have been slow to accept new housing for fear of changing its character.
As elsewhere, housing production slowed in Salem over the last 20 years, and home prices have risen significantly. It was only in 2019 that the city started taking reform efforts — like the ADU policy or an ordinance that allowed old municipal and religious buildings to be converted to housing — seriously.
“In a lot of our cities and towns, opposition rules. It shuts down any calls for change,” said Christine Madore, a former Salem city councilor who now works at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. “But [Driscoll] got past that. She brokered conversations with the community and successfully managed to push through some meaningful reforms. That says a lot about who she is.”
Driscoll confirmed that she will play some role in the Healey administration’s housing efforts, though it is not yet clear exactly what. Whatever the role, it will most certainly prove more challenging than changing zoning in Salem. A lieutenant governor may command a bigger stage, but within the boundaries of their city, mayors have far more clout.
“That’s the thing with state reform,” said Rachel Heller, chief executive of the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association. “You’re not navigating the objections of one community, you’re navigating the complaints of hundreds. So it’s a huge challenge. But if you understand the problems in one community, you have a pretty good understanding of what you’ll hear in others.”
Among the first challenges the incoming administration will face is enforcing the MBTA Communities law, which mandates new multifamily zoning in 175 cities and towns with access to the MBTA. Questions have swirled around how it will work, while a big deadline approaches at the end of January when communities must submit an “action plan” detailing how they’ll implement the new zoning.
Persuading those communities to comply is a role someone like Driscoll — who before she was mayor worked in the Planning Department in Beverly and as city solicitor and deputy city manager in Chelsea — could play well, said Jay Ash, CEO of the business organization the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and Baker’s former economic development secretary.
“Oftentimes the answer to the problem is just making people feel like they’re at the table to help solve the question,” said Ash, who worked with Driscoll when he was Chelsea city manager. “That’s something that Kim is remarkably good at. Bringing the right people to the table, having a fruitful conversation, and saying very frankly, ‘Look, we have a housing crisis that isn’t going to go away unless every community does its part.’”
Meanwhile, advocates are waiting to see what the Healey administration will do beyond implementing Housing Choice and MBTA Communities.
Heller, who serves on Healey’s housing transition team, is hoping for big steps to increase housing production, and more money for the state’s rental voucher program and local housing authorities.
Brendan Crighton, a state senator from Lynn and former chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Housing, argued for meaningful changes to how zoning is regulated in Massachusetts, to allow for more housing production and make it easier for solutions such as accessory units and affordable housing mandates in new developments. He’s also looking for the state to continue to fund new housing and homeownership programs once federal pandemic recovery funds dry up.
“It’s been a lot easier to invest in housing with all of this extra money on hand,” said Crighton. “But we have to keep treating this like the crisis that it is.”
So far, Driscoll and Healey have shared few specifics of their housing priorities. They have hinted at plans to “streamline” permitting and pledged to ramp up construction and create a housing secretary to lead their efforts.
But for now, eyes are still planted firmly on Driscoll.
“I want people to know that we are taking this seriously,” said Driscoll. " For me, housing is a moral issue. It’s a human right, that you should be able to have an accessible roof over your head.”
Andrew Brinker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewnbrinker.